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Startups, Software, Everything Wildcard

Understanding Design Culture

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A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion panel about building design culture with Khoi Vinh from Wildcard and Pierre Valade from Sunrise. They are both designers I respect and admire tremendously, and I was surprised by the astonishing difference in their design processes. With so many variables in practice of design, how can we, as founders, try to build a design culture?

“Design is everything engineers don’t do.” — Khoi Vinh

“Design is everything, it’s how we solve problems.” — Pierre Valade

These quotes are much broader than the traditional understanding of design. It touches every corner of a company, and it requires a culture with tremendous empathy and understanding of the design process. So, to me, good design culture means everyone in the company has a certain level of understanding and appreciation of the design process. This is especially difficult to adopt, because shifting the mentality for a group of people takes time and consistent effort.

Design is having ridiculously high standard for product experience. Design is going above and beyond to delight users. Design is being obsessive about every little detail. Design requires numerous iterations and relaxed time constraints.

Predictability of shipping date goes down dramatically when the standard of design goes up. This means engineering needs to understand that 29 out of the 30 prototypes will not ship. This means marketing and PR needs to understand the marketing plan may start 2 months after the initial planned date. This means product needs to understand that design will gather information, get inspired from unconventional processes that sometimes seems like they are “wasting time”. And our job as a founders is to make sure we create enough space to make that happen.

One cannot simply build a design culture without having first-class design DNA. You can’t fake design culture by hosting the occasional customer interviews or getting employee passes to photography exhibits. Design culture is a commitment to the art and the process, and the first step to that commitment is to work with designers who REALLY knows what they are doing.

If you are just starting out with this process, there WILL be a period of time of learning to understanding where the lines are. I have been fortunate enough to work with some talented designers over the years, and here are a few things I have learned:

  • Things WILL get thrown away. Figure out how to build CHEAP prototypes.
  • The design process requires TIME and INSPIRATION. Sometimes it means browsing Dribbble for an afternoon, sometimes it means working in complete isolation for a few days.
  • Don’t expect to validate everything in mockup form. A lot of times (especially for consumer products), you just have to play with the product.
  • Subtle things REALLY matter. Things like typography make a big difference.
  • Over-communicate, try to define a very clear goal at the beginning.
  • Know that design is a never-ending process, sometimes things cannot be measured by metrics.

If you are not a designer, what other things have you learned working with a design team? If you are a designer, what other things do you wish your counter parts would understand?